Thanksgiving: Milan to the Mediterranean. It could be Nice in Nice!

The weather could be lovely later this month in Nice, France.

It will definitely be better than here in Cincinnati — and Nice has a beach and a market and a Michelin-starred restaurant in town (with several more nearby) and a very close Matisse-designed chapel; BUT I can’t take time away to get there this year — drat!

My loss.  Your gain.

Here’s how I was putting together a last-minute, spectacular vacation.  Now it can be for you and a special friend.

To nip the winter blahs in the bud, either:

1) Grab your partner.  Go to the Air France Flying Blue (rewards) site with $500 and 50,000 points (or $900 and 87,500 points if you want to go over in Business Class for a better chance at getting some sleep.)  Find Air France Promo Awards — 12,500 points each way from Chicago to Europe on KLM.  The best flight still available is the  connection  through Amsterdam on KLM’s 747.  (Fly a 747 upstairs in Business Class before that experience is gone!)

Traveling directly to Nice, you miss Milan’s Christmas shopping — unless you rent a car and make the 4 hour drive into Italy.  Beware: you may head for Milan and get distracted by other attractions along the way.  But that’s another blog entry!


2) Take one of the NYC to Milan flights (Alitalia or Delta) made cheaper this year by Emirates’s entry into that market.  Last time I looked Cincinnati to NYC in First and nonstop on to Milan (Delta/Alitalia)  in Business was $2400 per person or $1076 in coach out of Cincinnati on Air France/Delta.  From the East Coast it’s $605 each in coach out of Newark on United/Lufthansa or $721 on Emirates out of JFK.

Stay in Milan a couple days, then drive to Nice.  I was going to try the Hotel Suisse (on the coast) and the Hotel La Villa Nice Victor Hugo (in town) in Nice, but there are any number of hotel rooms in the area still open for Euros or points.  I saw a Le Meridien promo this week.  There’s one in Nice, or Le Meridien Beach Plaza is in Monte Carlo — another adventure not that far up the coast.

Have a great trip!

Is Llama in Lima this year’s Turkey in Turkey?

Once upon a time at Thanksgiving — not too long ago — we flew to St. Thomas to catch the shoulder season, rum, fun, seafood, sand, sun and surf on St. John, USVI.  Though quickly being weaned from stateside food, on our day of national feasting we searched for and found adequate sliced turkey with dressing and mashed potatoes, served from a disposable aluminum pan.

Stretched to a little over a week and divided between St. John’s  wonderful beaches, Thanksgiving was a nice break before plunging into the hectic Christmas season.  I was tanned.  I was rested.  I was not five pounds heavier.

The following year, we escalated to something really weird.  This time, totally passing up the traditional turkey, we went to Madrid at Thanksgiving when, with no fanfare, Delta posted a $1910 roundtrip business class fare.  The sale broke my “$2000 Business Class fare barrier,” and I couldn’t refuse.

We loved the clear, crisp days;  the fabulous food, both large and small (tapas) plates; the wonderful museums when it drizzled; and a couple “finds” at el Rastro flea market.  We were hooked on Thanksgiving week travel.


Each year since, I’ve been on the lookout for a Thanksgiving giveaway/getaway.

Early last year, airlines began discounting seats to Turkey.  I started reading about Istanbul.  There was a lot to read.  I prepared for an adventure.  After nearly jumping on a rare $399 roundtrip fare from D.C. to Istanbul in March, I was ultimately hooked by a $532 fare out of Chicago at Thanksgiving.

I wrote a “Turkey in Turkey” post and researched a culinary walking tour of the backstreets of Istanbul with the wonderful folks at “Istanbul Eats.”   Frownface.  At the last minute I had to cancel.

I did the sour grapes thing to make myself feel better:  after all, the “super deal” was in coach.  Sure, you can self-medicate and fly non-stop from Newark, but it’s still a long, long flight.  And speaking of rest, how about some Istanbul unrest?  But I was still sad about missing the trip.

Another year, another direction

Times change.  Three years ago, Delta had surreptitiously offered a low fare.  This year I’ve been bombarded with Thanksgiving week specials.  Airlines no longer seem to care when we see how deep they’re willing to discount fares to fill planes.  It’s Priceline gone public.

An email this week from American Airlines stood out from the rest.  Was it the brightly colored “South American turkey” in the picture?  Or was it Lima, Peru?

Lima airfare special

Even though we’re not an AA “featured city,” I found roundtrip coach fares from CVG for $1054.  7200 miles with a stop in Dallas or Miami didn’t sound too bad.  It’s south.  It’s in the other hemisphere where November is very different — and that’s better!

Business class for only slightly more than coach

Glancing to the right on the AA flight listing, I was shocked to find roundtrip Business Class fares were just $700 more than Coach — $1729 to $1754.  Not exactly a mileage run bargain, but still a tempting option.  After a short coach commuter jet, I can choose a 757 or  767 out of MIA or DFW with a recliner or angle-flat bed and a decent meal (and extra mileage credit) for the 7 hours to Lima.

Lima via MIA
Lima via MIA

Delta is showing $1524 with lie-flat business class roundtrip from Atlanta, $1936 for those of us originating in Cincinnati.

Machu Picchu anyone?

November marks the “official” start of the Peruvian rainy season, but as I write this I’m looking at a forecast for the next 10 days in October that shows showers every day at Machu Picchu.  Who can outguess the weather?  Pack an umbrella.  Wear boots and a raincoat.  Enjoy the view.  It won’t be as crowded as my local supermarket at Thanksgiving, and in Lima the turkeys have those wonderful orange beaks.

Air France Award Ticket bargains for July & August

Every two months, Air France announces their “Promo Awards,” super good deals — 25 to 50% off — for redeeming rewards miles*.  There are usually specials for each of their “regions**,” but during May and June we (North America) had no deals.  For July and August, we scored!

About a week before the official announcement,  Air France posted a preview of their special deals.  The July-August preview was merely ok.

AF July 1 - aug 31

However, when the real chart went live, with active links to “Book Now,” things got a lot better.


Originally, Business Class availability was limited to Chicago, Montreal, and Washington, DC (the last two nearly impossible  connections from my airport — CVG).  AF added Business Class from Detroit, Minneapolis and New York City (not a screaming bargain at 46,875 miles, but still a good deal for Business Class at 25% off the Classic Award; or you can fly cheaply out of Boston, served quite well by AF and partners.  Houston and Washington, DC, are also on the chart but missed my screen shot.)

The Chicago to Europe Business Class award dropped from 46,875 (75% of the Classic Award 62,500) to 31,250 (a 50% bargain).

All the numbers here are one-way, and that’s a great thing about Flying Blue Awards — I like to sleep going over, which means Business Class.  Coming back home is usually a daytime flight.  If I can amuse myself in ways other than sleeping, it can be in Coach (25,000 mile Classic Award — or, heck, spring for the 31,250 and put my feet up in Business Class).

Mixed class awards are easy to book with Flying Blue Awards.  Even flights over to one city/country and back from another (“open jaw”) can be booked easily as two one-way flights with no miles penalty.  I like over to London, back from Paris.  I’m also thinking about over to Lisbon and back from Madrid — two delightful cities with a lot of fun touring options in between.  Flying Blue makes these possible.

Let’s Go!

*   *   *

* The website says, “with Promo Awards@, you save between 25 to 50% on the Award Miles usually required for a Classic Award ticket to certain destinations in the same cabin class. Promo Awards@ are available for limited periods and exclusively online. Discover these offers on our Flying Blue Promotions and News pages.  Please note that it is not possible to change or cancel Promo Awards@.”

** Air France, “regions” = Europe, North America, South America, Caribbean and Indian Ocean, Africa, Asia Pacific, and Middle East.

Five Day Sale — up to 50% off at Accor Hotels — June 17 thru June 21.

M Gallery, Pullman, Mercure, Novotel, and Ibis — Up to 40% Off

Up to 50% OFF Using Your (FREE!) Le Club AccorHotels Membership.



Why You Should Consider Accor Hotels:

Accor Hotels is actively promoting and growing its selection of European properties.  It’s a good time to stay at one of their hotels.  

M Gallery is their collection of very cool, centrally located, often historic hotels.  Fun examples:  in Carcassonne or (La Bastide de) Gordes, hotels are located in the walls of ancient towns in France.  Hotel Baltimore Paris is in an 18th century townhouse.

Pullman, Mercure and Novotel are “business” hotels that are well-located for tourists as well.

Ibis is often in the suburbs and always cheap, clean, and efficient.

If you book your stay using this 40% link to the website and briefly tell me about your experience, I’ll gratefully acknowledge your comments and the small commission I receive. 

I got 50% off deals using my Accor Hotels member number — on Mercure Hotels in Paris, M Gallery in Marseille.

Hotel de Brienne, Toulouse, France

Away from noise and crowds, but you can easily walk to either
Hotel de Brienne is clean, friendly, modern, and located on a quiet street. Mere blocks away are throngs of students in bars along the river or, in another direction, crowds of tourists (and locals) at the Place du Capitole. Go see both, but leave your car in the free hotel garage and walk.


Toulouse is on a big rebuild, so things along Rue D’Alsace Lorraine, the Hotel de l’Opera corner of Place du Capitole and over to Place Wilson are a little torn up.  The future in that central shopping area looks good — granite sidewalks and streets are on the way. Meanwhile, it’s another reason to stay a few blocks away and walk over from the Hotel de Brienne.

Parking at the hotel’s underground garage is tight — a reminder to rent a small car in Europe. If it’s not crowded when you arrive, back into your spot. You’ll be happier when it’s time to leave. There’s also more room outside in back.

I only wish the breakfast coffee had been better.

Best Rooms
Initially, we were concerned that Room 307 was right by the elevator. No worries. We heard nothing.  307 was remodeled, small but efficiently arranged.  Small windows facing the back.
Originally reviewed for Trip Advisor — October 6, 2012

Bilbao, Spain — Meliá Bilbao

Great location, view, and service

I am biased because I really love the Melia chain. This location does not disappoint.  I love things like the Nespresso coffee maker in the room because, coming from the U.S., I am used to seeing Mr. Coffee.  Even with George Clooney on their billboards, Nespresso seems so foreign, so much more European.

Best Rooms

Our “premium” room, number 808 (one notch up from the basic), included  a balcony overlooking a park — the evening favorite for dogs and their owners — and facing the river and hills around Bilbao.

Treat yourself to the one-step upgrade (roughly 20 Euro) from one of the 172 basic rooms and get one of the 18 rooms with park view and large balcony.  Save most of the upgrade cost by joining the Melia club for good deals on room rates, rewards, and (effective March 2013) free internet.  Our only bad thing: Hotel parking was 24 euros per night — no worse than anywhere else in Bilbao. Unfortunately, we needed the car for other travel.


If you walk along the river, pretty much any time of the day, you’ll see an assortment of like-minded locals and tourists. The wide walks never seem crowded. You also get a bunch of mind-blowing views of the Guggenheim Museum.

Bilbao really wants you to know they’re more than the Guggenheim.  In last September’s vote for a Bilbao “brand,”  one of the choices was “Much more than Guggenheim.”



It may be typical of Bilbao’s personality that the “much more than” graphic won, but the tag line was changed to “Be Basque.”   Locals are anxious to share their unique Basque perspectives.  Extend your stroll into the old part of town, or take the tram that stops near the museum, to find tapas and fun local shops. While snacking on tapas at Bukoi Taberna, we were guided in the proper Basque way to order a small beer — a “zurito” (sounds like “thirito.”)

Originally reviewed for Trip Advisor — November 30, 2012

Free Easter Weekend Night at Conde Nast Traveler Gold List Hotel in Houston

I like this hotel, and I love the fine print on the offer.

Stay two nights, get 1 free.  Here’s the fine print and the cool thing — the free night can be applied to that stay or used for a future reservation.  You get a gift certificate at check-out.  Rates from $169 per room, double occupancy.

Also included:

  • Continental breakfast for two.  The breakfast was wonderful when I stayed there.
  • Two cocktails at Monnalisa (“Mona Lisa”) Bar at the hotel — with upstairs, open-air courtyard

This offer is only available over Easter week-end from March 28 – April 1, when the business travelers return.

The Hotel Sorella at CityCentre in Houston made the Conde Nast Traveler Gold list for 2013.  I liked it when I stayed there (before it got famous!) so I’m passing along a link to the hotel.  I do not get a fee if you book this.  I just like the hotel and the generous terms.

Back Forty West, 70 Prince Street (at Crosby), NYC 10012 (SoHo)

There’s a back story for this place:  about the original Back Forty over in the East Village, about the previous restaurant at this Prince Street location — the Savoy, and about who prefers which or why.  I haven’t lived in NYC since the 70s; I’m just visiting the city; so for me, no worries.  For me, it’s enough that our Sunday afternoon, “brunchy” food is lovely to look at and tastes wonderful.

The kale salad [Is that green leaf everywhere these days?] is like a Caesar, except topped with two poached eggs.  Roasted garbanzo beans replace croutons.  Two fun updates.

The re-imagined Eggs Benedict substitutes mushrooms for an English muffin and features a scattering of bitter greens which work nicely with the Hollandaise. It appears as “egg sandwich” on the bill — perhaps a clever reference to the most famous re-imagining of Eggs Benedict, the Egg McMuffin.

I also had a Bloody Mary which, for better (I think) or for worse, had more horseradish than I’ve ever experienced without catching fire, plus a lovely celery flavor.

Originally reviewed for Trip Advisor — January 23, 2013.


Metropolitan Museum $0 Guilt-Free Admission

Sure the Met can always be free, but can you go free, guilt-free?

“Two members of the Metropolitan Museum of Art have sued the museum, contending that it misleads the public into thinking that its admission fees – $25 for adults, and less for seniors and students – are mandatory and not simply suggested. (The museum’s original lease with the city specified that it had to be accessible free of charge several days of the week, but the museum says that changes in city policy in the 1970s allowed it to institute a voluntary admission fee.)”  New York Times, November 15, 2012.

When I lived in NYC in the 70s, the sign said “Pay what you wish, but you must pay something.”  Now the sign says “Recommended Admission $25.”  “Recommended” is in significantly smaller letters.  I was a tourist in NYC in January.  I paid the recommended $25.  Had I not paid, I would have felt guilty.  Tourists pay for things like museums.  But had I been able to avoid guilt, would I have liked to get in free?  Yes!

Bank of America has a way to get in free, guilt-free — a program called Museums on Us®.
  • “Each cardholder gets one free general admission to more than 150 museums nationwide.”   The card you need to be holding is any valid Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit or debit card.
  • “Offer valid the first full week-end (Sat. and Sun.) of the month.”   Watch out if you’re scheduling September or December, 2013, where “full week-end” means the offer applies on the week-end of the 7th and 8th, not Sunday the 1st and  Saturday the 7th.
  • “Photo ID must be presented.”  Forget about lending your BOA credit card to your neighbor.

Why do I say “guilt-free”?

I’ve not been in a coma for the last 5 years, so I’m pretty careful about reading the footnotes and fine print on any free offer from a bank.  Since the rules limit us to one general admission per card with photo ID, I’m betting Bank America is actually paying something for each admission.  I think you can be confident that the museum you visit is getting paid and you can enjoy guiltless museum pleasure.

Museums on Us® means one free admission at each of 150 museums nationwide.  In NYC, just hitting the majors — the Metropolitan, Whitney and Guggenheim — would rack up $65 in admission savings.

MAS Rewards is now MeliáRewards — a Review

Introduction to Meliá Hotels

Meliá runs 350+ hotels, with many choices in Spain (181) and Portugal (14); coverage of major cities in Europe; a good selection of countries in South America; and 9 hotels in Mexico.  In the U.S., you can sample the brand in Atlanta, New York City or Orlando.

In Spain and Portugal, you can choose everything from golf or beach resorts, airport hotels, and business/conference hotels, to historic properties in wonderfully revitalized neighborhoods.

I’ve stayed in Madrid, Barcelona, and Bilboa — each in a great location, each different, each staffed with talented people.  I’m not a chain hotel kind of person, but I enjoy this one.


MAS Rewards is now MeliáRewards.  

There are now four levels of membership:  MeliáRewards (equivalent to the old MAS Rewards Blue), a new Silver level, plus classic Gold and Platinum.  Depending on your level, you earn from 10 to 14 points for every € or $ on your booking (or YHI Spa purchases).

Points are redeemable for stays.  Upscale properties require more points, but I’ve never seen a date blacked-out or surcharged.   When you throw in some cash, you can redeem as few as 2000 points.  You get a small but nice discount, especially considering you only spent $200 or 200€ to get the 2000 points.  (Or follow link on the Melia website for a free 2000 point sign-up bonus.)

MeliáRewards points can be traded for airline points, or used to buy the typical hotel program bling.

Every member gets one free night for their birthday, a nice feature carried over from the MAS program.

What’s New?

All levels get discounted rates on the Meliá website.  In the last six months, this “member discount” has been getting more emphasis, as has their “best rate guarantee.”  The website is one of just a few hotel direct sites that TripAdvisor includes in availability/rate searches — an indication that Meliáa is pretty certain their rates are going to stand up to comparison.  Sign up.

Gold and Platinum are pretty much the same as the old MAS versions except each now has a “number of stays” qualification option — an alternative to “number of nights.”  So if you spend $2000 on 10 one-night-stands, you should qualify for Gold.  Or you can qualify with 20 nights.  Gold and Platinum now also have a path to lifetime qualification.

If you want free upgrades at check-in, you ‘ll need to get to Platinum.  Gold gets 50% off room upgrades.

For me, the one bad thing about Meliá hotels was the charge for Internet access.   I suggested that they could make a lot of friends by dropping that charge.  I’m pretty certain I wasn’t the only one suggesting that.  It’s a little tough for me to understand their exact strategy here, but they seem to be moving toward free access.  Depending on the hotel brand and your membership level, you get something between a free hour and unlimited internet.

Other plusses

+ Free mineral water — one bottle on arrival for most, a daily bottle for Platinum

+ Platinum gets free airport transfers at upscale properties

+ Platinum officially gets access to Melia’s concierge floor:  variously called the Level, Red Level, Royal Service or Deep Lounge, depending on the hotel.  Whatever it’s called, “the level” has nice features.

A few Losses

–  The elephant in the room:  points now expire after a year of no activity.  Activity can include redemptions, transfers, and the like.  Don’t neglect your points.  They will vanish.

–  The 50% breakfast discount, which was quite nice, is gone, replaced by 10%, 15%, 20% discounts (for breakfast, snack bars, and minibars) depending on level.  We’ll be looking more carefully at the rates that include breakfast — both good and generous at Meliá properties we’ve visited.

–  You now need at least Silver for 2 pm check-out.

–  Gold, which used to get 10am check-in, now gets their room at 11 am.  I’m not a spokesman for the chain, but I’m thinking this isn’t going to be a problem.  I’ve never asked for anything outlandish, but I’ve never had anyone at a Meliá read me a rule book.   I’m pretty certain we once showed up at 10 am in Madrid with absolutely no status, were ready to have our luggage put in storage for a couple hours, and were cheerfully shown to our room.

If the staff doesn’t seem to be on your side; if they’re not helping you enjoy your visit; check to see if you’re really in a Meliá hotel.

Here is the new “levels” chart with a link to the 2000 point sign-up bonus.  Enjoy your stay.